Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fish Camp

The king salmon (Chinook) are running strong on the lower Kuskokwim River now, and many people have left Bethel and the villages to live in their fish camps. This is a busy, hardworking time in the subsistence lifestyle.

The king salmon run will last for a couple of weeks. During that time, people who live by subsistence must catch a year’s worth of salmon for their family, fillet it, cut it into strips, brine it, dry it, and smoke it. A family of eight or ten will dry and smoke about 60 large fish. Fish camp is the best place to do it.

The lands along the rivers are held by the various Native corporations and leased to individuals on a yearly basis. There is no power or water service, just access to the river. Families build smoke houses and drying racks for the fish, and cabins to sleep in. The same land often stays in a family for several generations and is added to over time. Some fish camps have elaborate houses and outbuildings and are very comfortable camps to live in.

With over twenty hours of daylight, work goes on almost around the clock. Boats go out with drift nets just before low tide (twice a day). The ideal is to have the net in the water when the tide turns and the salmon surge upriver on their free ride. In a thirty-minute drift, the nets can fill up quickly. Many fish camps also have a set net in the river, anchored at both ends, which is checked several times daily. If it is well placed, a set net may supply several large fish per day.

Most of the fishermen are men, and most of the fish cutters are women. When the men bring the boats in, the women come forth to begin the next step. Fish cutting tables are set up at the river’s edge. The fish are gutted right into the river, saving the egg sacs, and then brought to the table. With brisk efficiency and very little wastage, the fish are filleted and then cut into long narrow strips. Each strip is about a half inch wide and three feet long (or as long as the fish was from gills to tail). The strips are dipped into a salt water brine—for which there are many Secret Family Recipes—and hung on drying racks under a tarp for several days. Once dry, they are moved into the smokehouse for two to three weeks of smoking over a cottonwood or alder fire which is kept constantly burning.

Cutting the fillets into long, even strips can be time-consuming. Some people prefer to make “blankets”. A blanket is one entire salmon fillet (as much as one foot wide by three feet long) in which the bright red meat is sliced down to, but not through the skin, on the short dimension—from back to belly, not head to tail. The slices are made a half inch apart, and when the blanket is laid over a pole to dry, the wedges of meat between the slices fan apart, allowing for even drying.

The product of this work is “dry fish”, the staple of the Yupik diet. The strips have a jerky-like consistency, chewy and full of smoky salmon flavor and oil. Good strips are just divine. It is said that an astute elder can taste your strips and know whether you let your fire go out during smoking—for which you are a lazy slackard, though no one would say it to your face.

Life at fish camp is fun for kids, but they have chores to do too. Five-gallon buckets of water must be dipped from the river and carried to the cutting table for washing fillets, ulus (curved blade knife) and hands. Ulus must be sharpened frequently. Brine buckets full of strips must be carried to the drying rack and hung. Buckets full of dried strips must be carried to the smokehouse and hung. The finished product must be carried into the cabin and packaged for storage. When the mosquitoes are thick, smoky fires are kept burning around the edges of camp to repel them; gathering wood and feeding these fires are often the older children’s responsibility. And with the river right there, the younger children must be watched carefully.

In the old days, the Yupik Eskimo were far more nomadic than they are today. They spent early summer at fish camp, late summer at berry camp picking berries, and fall at moose camp hunting moose. Each camp had a different location, and each family had a traditional place that was their camp for each activity.

Most of the people that I talk to have wonderful memories of their time at fish camp while growing up, and still very much enjoy going there. Fish camp has become a symbol of the freedom of the subsistence lifestyle, living on “river time” and moving with the rhythms of the sun and the tide. And eating salmon fresh from the river at nearly every meal. Fish camp marks the beginning of summer, the favorite season of childhood. And it comes just when everyone is greedy for fresh salmon, and there is plenty.

Photos by The Tundra PA:

1. Fish camp on the Yukon River.

2&3 Fish camp on the Kuskokwim River.

4. Drift net ready to catch fish.

5. Average Kuskokwim king.

6. Filleting salmon with an ulu.

7. Many strips and a few blankets hanging.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Birdwatching on the Gweek River

Most of this area where I live in southwest Alaska is a huge wildlife refuge, the 19 million acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The headquarters for the Refuge are here in Bethel, a fairly long way from the Yukon River, leading some of us to feel that it should be named the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta NWR.

The Y-K Delta is the summer home to a huge population of migratory birds, particularly waterfowl. Birds come here from all over the world—as far away as Malaysia and South America—to mate, build nests, and raise their young. Such a long trip is worth their effort because of the tremendous untouched habitat available in this region of half land/half water, and because of the bounteous food source that our famous Alaskan mosquitoes provide them.

Those of us two-leggeds who share the habitat with them are certainly appreciative of the degree to which the birds reduce that pesky population, though they could eat five times as many mosquitoes as they do and still barely make a dent in the numbers. I read once that if Alaska’s summer mosquito population were condensed into a solid block, it would be a cubic mile of biomass.

Just as birds fly great distances to get here, so do birdwatchers. Avid birders and even ornithologists come away from a birdwatching visit here with new additions to their Life Lists (birds they may only see once in a lifetime).

But despite the huge summer avian population, Bethel is something of a well-kept secret when it comes to the development of birdwatching tourism. There are not a lot of ways for visitors to get out where the birds are and see them. One local company, Kuskokwim Wilderness Adventures, is working hard to change that.

KWA is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Bev Hoffman and John McDonald, two of my long-time friends, and Bev's brother and SIL Mike and Jill Hoffman. Bev was born and raised here, and brought John back here with her from college more than thirty years ago. They are both excellent dog mushers, fishermen, and skilled outdoors people. For years I have planned to go on one of their spring birdwatching trips but just never got around to doing it. Yesterday I finally did.

We had an absolutely gorgeous day. The sky was brilliant blue with a few scattered shreds of cloud; the sun had some real strength to it, which gave us temperatures in the low 70s; and there was a light and steady breeze on the rivers which mostly kept the mosquitoes away. It just doesn’t get much better than that!

A group of seven of us, with John and Bev as our guides, left the small boat harbor at 6 AM in two boats with comfortable enclosed interiors. Our destination was the upper reaches of the Gweek River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim whose mouth is about ten miles upriver from Bethel. The Gweek is a tundra river some forty miles long which drains a huge area to the west of the Kuskokwim; as such it is not a salmon-spawning river as it does not come from the mountains and therefore contains no gravel, which the salmon require for their redds. The water of the Gweek contains so much tannin from the thick tundra plant carpet that it looks like tea. It could aptly be named the Lipton River.

At that early hour on a Saturday morning there was no one up and about either around town or out on the river. We did not see a single other boat until we got back to the Kuskokwim in mid afternoon. To me, true wilderness is not just the lack of human-made structures; it is also the absence of other humans. Even a wild location, such as many of our national forests, doesn’t feel like wilderness when there are people around other than whatever group I am with. I feel incredibly fortunate to live in a place where such true wilderness is not just available, it is everywhere around me, and as easy to access as a quick boat or snowmachine ride.

With thermoses of hot coffee and binoculars in hand, we left Bethel behind and were soon cruising up the Gweek River. This was the last of John and Bev’s four Saturday trips, and they had locations of particular interest plotted on their GPS units. We pulled off into several small sloughs, cut the motors and just drifted with the slight current, listening to a myriad of bird calls. John’s ability to identify birds from their call is phenomenal. He quickly named a half dozen birds we were hearing, which to me just sounded like a conglomerate chatter of bird noise.

At several places on the river we pulled over to the bank and all climbed out of the boats to hike through birch groves and up on to the tundra in search of several specific species with known nesting spots. John and Bev have been doing these trips for over fifteen years and are intimately familiar with the area and the birds’ patterns and locations of nesting. We walked right up to a small tree which had a Great Horned Owl nest with two half-grown chicks in it. They were so fuzzy they looked like little ewoks from Star Wars. They never moved the whole time we watched them, but just sat in the nest about twenty feet off the ground looking down at us. The previous two Saturdays, John said, the adult owls have been close by, watching us watch them protectively. Yesterday we did not see them near the nest, but saw one of them later one slough away.

Great Horned Owls are big birds with strong wings and are amazingly efficient predators of small animals. Here in the Delta, they mainly eat rabbits, but they are omnivores who will eat just about anything. My dad told me an interesting story this morning which I have to divert briefly to relay. A couple who are good friends of his, the Rocket Scientist and the Birdwatcher, visited a wildlife refuge in California where the park rangers told them of a Great Horned Owl within the refuge who was closely monitored for twelve years. When the bird died, they took ladders to get to its large nest, and in the nest they found 120 cat collars. Owls are not only efficient hunters, they are opportunists. They will make dinner out of whatever is easiest to catch.

In addition to seeing and hearing lots of birds, we also hiked over some beautiful land that I had not seen before—huge lakes, wildflowers, thick stands of cottonwood and birch trees. And it was such a gorgeous day to be out. When we were on land the mosquitoes found us pretty quickly and would have been crazy-making if not for the bug shirts which John and Bev provided.

They are called The Original Bug Shirt—Elite Edition, and they are the ultimate garment to have when bugs are out. They are very light weight, have elastic drawstrings at cuffs and hem and a hood with zip-up fine-mesh face screen roomy enough to fit over a bill cap which holds the mesh away from your face. Side and underarm panels are mesh as well, allowing the breeze to keep you cool when the weather is hot. They can be worn over a tee-shirt or under a jacket. The shirt folds up into its own front pocket for easy storage. It comes in tan and dark green and costs about $70 from the Bug Shirt people. For those readers in the Bethel area, the K-300 Feed Store (which John and Bev operate) sell them for $60. There is also a camouflage version which is slightly more. In my opinion it is the best thing out there and well worth the money. Dutch and I both have one of each color.

When we finally stopped for lunch, it was just past noon and we were about thirty miles up the Gweek. We anchored in the middle of the river, tied the two boats together, and feasted on a lunch of deli sandwiches, home-made killer potato salad, chips, cookies and beverages. John brought out copies of the wildlife refuge’s list of known bird species within our area so we could count the ones we had seen that day. Of the 102 birds on the list, we spotted 39:

Tundra Swan

Green-wing Teal




American Wigeon

Lesser Scaup

Black Scoter


Bald Eagle

Rough-legged Hawk

Sandhill Crane

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Common Snipe

Long-tailed Jaeger

Glaucous Gull

Arctic Tern

Great Horned Owl

Alder Flycatcher

Tree Swallow

Bank Swallow


Gray-cheek Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush


Orange-crown Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Myrtle Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler


Wilson’s Warbler

American Tree Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Slate-colored Junco

Rusty Blackbird


Birds from the list that are frequently seen here but just not around yesterday are Pine Grosbeak, Phalarope, Willow Ptarmigan, Canada Goose, Common Loon, Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Black-cap Chickadee, Shrike. And then there is my pair of Pacific Golden Plover near the house which I saw yesterday but the rest of the people on the trip did not.

One bird that we had great hopes of seeing was the Hudsonian Godwit. There is a nesting area for these shy birds around a small tundra pond a short hike from the Gweek. John and Bev saw them two weeks ago, but they did not choose to show themselves to us yesterday. In the previous two trips, John said they also saw moose and black bear, but we had no such luck; the only mammals we saw were beaver.

With lunch done and equipment stowed we made a straight shot back to Bethel in about an hour and half. Once we got back to the Kuskokwim there were quite a few (maybe a dozen) boats out drift-netting for salmon. The king (Chinook) run is starting to get strong and the reds (sockeye) are just beginning to come up the river. Several friends were out fishing yesterday and this morning and I was delighted to be gifted some fresh salmon—my first of the season, and I am so hungry for it.

So for any of you birdwatchers out there who are interested in the avian populations here, you couldn’t do better than to contact Kuskokwim Wilderness Adventures. John and Bev are excellent guides who will take great care of you.

Photos by The Tundra PA. I was feeling too lazy to make 39 links for your easy clicking pleasure to Wiki all the birds we saw, but they are there if you are interested. The last photo is a Tundra Swan in flight, and yes, the sky was that incredible color all day long. The only photoshopping I did was to reduce the pixel size, no color enhancing was done.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Summer of Change

Long time readers of this blog have probably noticed that it has changed quite a bit since I first started writing it two years ago. It is less about bush medicine and more about bush culture. And, frankly, it is more about me than I originally intended. The first change has evolved out of a general concern for patient confidentiality. The hospital decided that I could not post any pictures taken in their facilities, and that made me less interested in writing the medical stories. There was so much to write about the culture that I hardly noticed the shift.

The second shift, to writing more about myself, came more gradually. As much as I thought the blog was not about me back in the beginning, it was to some degree. It is just a little more so now.

The biggest change of all is now happening, and I am not sure just how this blog will go on after it is done. This is my last summer in Bethel. And I am already spending it alone.

Dutch and I have been feeling for the last few months as though the time was coming when we would be ready to move on, to turn the page, to live our life someplace different than Bethel. In April he applied for a position with the City of Kenai; it was offered, he accepted, and a month ago he moved there to start his new job. I am required to give much more notice, and can’t leave here until the end of September. Four months apart until I can join him there. He started exactly five days after our wedding.

Kenai (KEEN eye) is a small town (population 7,400) in southcentral Alaska, about 60 air miles and 150 road miles south of Anchorage. It is on the Kenai Peninsula at the mouth of the Kenai River. It is on Alaska’s limited road system, therefore not “in the Bush”. And it is in the land of tall mountains, big trees and beautiful ocean—the “picturebook” part of Alaska.

We found a wonderful house through serendipitous good fortune: a friend here had a relative there who was looking for some reliable people to lease the house for a year. And dogs welcome! It was perfect. It is right on the Kenai River, has a great fenced dog yard, and moose wandering through the property on their trails down to the river. The deck on the back looks out over the tops of tall fir trees, eagles flying up the river, and the Alaska Range marching straight into the Pacific Ocean. I am so ready to put a hot tub on that deck.

One of the best things about this change is that I will get to keep part of my old job, one of the parts I like the best. I will continue to do Radio Medical Traffic with the health aides in the villages by fax/phone from Kenai. And I hope to be able to fly back for an occasional village trip as well.

Once fall comes, I will no longer live on the tundra, but I will always be The Tundra PA. The beauty of the tundra has taken up residence in my heart, and it will always be part of me. Tundra Medicine Dreams will continue but may be a completely different type of blog. My interest in writing and what I want to write about is shifting along with all of this. It is time to start writing my novel.

Leaving Bethel is a huge change in my life, along with the loss of my grandmother and the acute loneliness of being separated from Dutch. The second two are a deep ache in the heart, lessened a little by all the planning and details for the first. There is much work to do, sorting, packing, cleaning, and selling off the big things like the boat, the snowmachines, and my truck. I’m not a packrat, but I’ve managed to accumulate a fair amount of junk in my ten years here.

All three dogs have stayed in Bethel with me, but now that Dutch is somewhat settled in to his job and our new house, it is time for Bear to go and keep him company. I’m planning a trip over for the 3-day weekend of the 4th of July, and he’ll go along as part of my checked luggage. After that it will be just us girls here in Bethel—me, Pepper and Princess.

And if I stay busy, the summer will go by quickly; there are fish to catch and berries to pick, as well as patients to see. It’s all good.

109 days until October 1st. Not that I’m counting.

Photos of moose by Dutch: the first just outside his office at City Hall, the second about a block from our house. Isn't it just such a Cecely moment? Feels like Northern Exposure all over again.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Coming Home

No matter where I’ve lived in my adult life—including a few “iffey” spots in my younger days—I’ve always loved coming home. From a trip, or just from a day at work. Being greeted by dogs who are happy to see me, sitting in my comfortable chair with a hot or a cold beverage depending on the weather, sleeping in my own bed if I’ve been away overnight, I just love coming home. No where has that been more true than since my home has been in Alaska.

Trips to the lower 48 are a huge culture shock to me. I wrote about it last year after my trip to Alabama in this post. This year felt much the same. There is such an incredible density of people everywhere; parking lots are crowded, freeways are packed with (mostly new) cars, restaurants are full, and everyone seems to be in such a hurry. Billboards are everywhere, yelling consume! Consume! Consume! And people are rushing to do it at a breathtaking rate.

There is so little wilderness anywhere. Even driving through the countryside, the land is fenced, tilled, cultivated. Roads are paved, lawns are manicured, everything is just so. The evidence of human occupation is practically inescapable, and that is what feels so different from Alaska.

Here we have pockets of civilization amid a gazillion miles of untouched wilderness. Here I don’t feel constantly squeezed by the joint pressures of population and consumer culture. Life down there feels to me like living in a pressure cooker. If you’ve never known anything else, then it seems normal, but the longer you’re away from it, the harder it is to go back into it.

And then there is the climate. It was 97 degrees with moderate humidity in San Antonio, and 94 degrees with horrid humidity in Alabama. Without air conditioning, you sweat just sitting still. At night it gets darker (so early!) but not much cooler. And as hot as it was in early June, it will be so much hotter in July and August. It felt like full-on summer to me already. How did people live there before air conditioning?

Arriving home in Alaska was jumping back half a season. We are having early to mid spring; the temperature was in the mid-forties this morning, and the air is clear, dry and cool, even at midday. The snow and ice are gone and the tundra is a thick green carpet in the early surge of flowering. Trees have tender green leaves beginning to soften the hard lines of their branches, and birds of all sizes are everywhere. The air is alive with their songs. The golden plover pair has returned for their third summer and is nesting about 200 feet from the front deck. The previous two summers they successfully raised a pair of chicks, and I am so glad to see that they are back.

The Kuskokwim River is in full river mode with boats, skiffs and barges plying its waters. The first barge arrived about a week ago, bringing our new gasoline supply; gas prices went from $5/gallon to $6/gallon overnight. The king (Chinook) salmon run has started and I hear that a few people are catching them. I can’t wait for my first taste of fresh, yummy king! Such delectable fish…

The hospital’s incredibly hectic pace throughout the winter has started to slow a bit as people move out of town to go to their fish camps for a month to cut, dry and smoke the salmon that will sustain them through the coming winter. We generally get a breather for late June and early July, as the daily census in the outpatient clinics drops by nearly half. After the intensity of the past winter, the slow-down is sorely needed by the staff, and gladly welcomed.

So as always, it is good to be home, and even more than I previously remember. For the last three evenings I have sat on my front deck at midnight, watching the sun keep his date with the horizon, filling my eyes and gladdening my heart with the wide sweeping view of tundra that rolls out endlessly to meet it. I love Alaska. I love coming home to it.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Still Traveling

The long silence on this blog is an indication that I am still far from home and have very limited computer access. I have been in Alabama for a week now, staying at my grandmother's home with my mother. My wish for one more visit with Grand was not to be. She passed peacefully and without pain a few days before I arrived. I cut my conference time in San Antonio short in order to be present at the memorial and funeral in Franklin, Kentucky. My sense of loss at her death is so deep that I cannot begin to express it. In the week that I have been here, I have not felt at all like writing. Perhaps that will come.

I was here for her 94th birthday last July, and she was so vibrantly alive. The last photo I took of her was the one on this post and I just love it. It is so typical of how she lived life, with enthusiasm and laughter. Her final illness was swift and brief; she decided that it was time to go, and in five short days she simply withdrew her life force and was gone. She left us with wonderful memories that will never be forgotten.

I will be back in Bethel on Sunday night, after a brief stopover in Seattle to visit with Dad and Stepmom. New posts to come then...